By current standards of ethnicity and lineage my ancestor’s leek-infested origins in some misty valley populated by sheep-botherers and not enough vowels makes me as Welsh as they come. So I’m hurting, really hurting, that Evelyn Waugh’s racist abuse remains on library shelves
The priority of Prime Minister Morrison should be to protect Welsh-Australians from insult and ridicule. I identify as Welsh via my great-grandmother, Cymreigis Thomas. Two years ago I petitioned then Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs over a Welsh-humiliating cartoon by the late Bill Leak, but although I got a response running to six single-spaced pages, the HRC has failed to stem hatefulness against Welshpersons.
I thought civic libraries were safe spaces but in my Moonee Valley Library last week, while leafing through Evelyn Waugh’s novel Decline and Fall, I was newly offended, insulted and intimidated as a Welshperson.
I disagree with book burnings but each library should have a naughty corner for works like Decline and Fall, Conrad’s book about that person of colour aboard the Narcissus, Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice, Guy Gibson VC’s Enemy Coast Ahead (because of the name of the squadron’s black Labrador), Biggles in Australia, and a shelf-load of other books literally beyond the pale.
In Britain it is justly an offence to disparage the Welsh and their language. A Sunday Times columnist was reprimanded last April for saying that the Severn Bridge connected the rain-sodden valleys of Wales with the First World, and that the Welsh were entitled to foreign aid in the form of vowels.
As for Decline and Fall, take the scene of the sports day of Llanabba Castle school, run by Dr Augustus Fagan. He has hired the local Welsh band, and explains how the Welsh retained their ancestral Iberian purity: they are so unclean that no invaders have wanted to mate with them. He says of the Welsh,
“Their sons and daughters mate freely with the sheep but not with the human kind except their own blood relations…
“The Welsh are the only nation in the world that has produced no graphic or plastic art, no architecture, no drama. They just sing,” he said with disgust, “sing and blow down wind instruments of plated silver.”
The Welsh band arrives.
“Ten men of revolting appearance were approaching from the drive. They were low of brow, crafty of eye and crooked of limb. They advanced huddled together with the loping tread of wolves, peering about them furtively as they came, as though in constant terror of ambush; they slavered at their mouths, which hung loosely over their receding chins, while each clutched under his apelike arm a burden of curious and unaccountable shape. On seeing the Doctor they halted and edged back, those behind squinting and mouthing over their companion’s shoulders…After brief preliminary shuffling and nudging, an elderly man emerged from the back of the group. He had a rough black beard and wore on his uneven shoulders a Druidical wreath of brass mistletoe berries…’
‘We are the silver band the Lord bless and keep you,’ said the [bandmaster] in one breath, ‘the band that no one could beat whatever but two indeed in the Eisteddfod that for all North Wales was look you.’
The Doctor ordered them to stay in a tent.
“There was a baying and growling and yapping as of the jungle at moonrise, and presently he came forward again with an obsequious, sidelong shuffle.
‘Three pounds you pay us would you said indeed to at the sports play…Nothing whatever we can play without the money first.’”
Dr Fagan produces his notecase “the sight of which seemed to galvanise the musicians into life; they crowded round, twitching and chattering…”
The bandmaster, Davies, led non-stop playing of Men of Harlech to visitors during the afternoon, also offering his sister for a pound or on special terms to titled visitors. Waugh remarks in the preface that his first publisher in 1928 thought it less indecent if the bandmaster were to seek work for his sister-in-law rather than sister. Editions from 1961 restored the sister to the original Welsh domestic duties.
Waugh’s book involves a full hand of racial prejudice, including anti-Semitism. The delectable prostitute-trafficker Mrs Margo Beste-Chetwynde brings her coal-black friend Chokey (real name Mr Sebastian Cholmondley) to the sports day. Chokey is a cathedral buff.
“When I saw the cathedrals my heart just rose up and sang within me. You folk think because we’re colored we don’t care about nothing but jazz. Why, I’d give up all the jazz in the world for just one little stone from one of your cathedrals…Salisbury is full of historical interest, but in my opinion York Minster is the more refined.”
“Oh you angel,” said Mrs Beste-Chetwynde, “I could eat you up every bit…Chokey shot a man at a party the other night, He gets gay [merry] at times, you know. It’s only when he’s on his best behavior that he’s so class-conscious.”
Waugh’s mysterious Untermensch, Solomon Philbrick, says, “N—s are all right. Where I draw a line is a C—-k, nasty inhuman things. I had a pal bumped off by a C—k once. Throat cut horrible, it was, from ear to ear.”
“Good gracious!” said the Clutterbuck governess. “Was that in the Boxer rising?”
“No,” said Philbrick cheerfully. “Saturday night in the Edgware Road.”
You might think Scott Morrison has bigger fish to fry than my hurt Welsh feelings. Well OK. Let him fix energy and immigration policy and restore the budget to surplus. But look you, bod yn barchus I bobl Cymru — don’t mess with us Welsh. It’s the land of my fathers, or at least, great-grandmothers.